Navigating the Food Desert
Perhaps you’ve heard of the newest reason people “can’t” eat well, known as the food desert. What are they? Where do you find them? Most importantly, how do you survive the food desert to maintain good health?
Digging a bit beneath the surface turns up some serious challenges to adopting a healthy diet in these areas, but also some great possibilities. Come with me as we explore the difficulties and some possible solutions to the dearth of healthy options.
What Is a Food Desert?
A food desert is a geographic area that has little to no access to the foods that help maintain a healthy diet. Often the problem is compounded by a proliferation of fast food restaurants in the same area.
Originally, the term referred to rural areas where there the distance from residences to markets was long. These days, at least in the U.S., it is generally recognized as an urban area where food stores have evacuated but fast food chains remain.
Compounding the problem is that many people who live in these areas are of little means. In some cases, the area is depressed with a high population of unemployed and underemployed people. In others, there are lots of elderly people who live on a fixed income and therefore believe they cannot afford fresh, healthy foods.
I became interested in this phenomenon after reading that 80% of African-American women are overweight or obese. Being a problem-solver by nature, I started looking into the complex psychosocial issues that make up a culture.
Certainly there are no easy answers, but there are common threads. Good food just isn’t available locally. Bad calories are cheaper than good. Fast food abounds. Transportation is a problem, and so on and so on.
Often in a food desert, as an area has declined economically, the grocery stores have pulled out. They close their doors, leaving the population without places to buy groceries, save perhaps fast food joints and convenience stores.
I watched that happen in the area where I grew up. The makeup of the population changed, the wealthier people moved, and everything closed but the IGA supermarket.
My family moved from that town to a slightly more rural area where the distance to the store was even farther. Had we not had a vehicle, and there being no bus service to our part of town, we’d have had to rely on what we could get home on a bike or on foot, plus our garden. This is certainly an example of a rural food desert.
Growing up poor isn’t a sin, and I’m grateful that my family of seven always had enough to eat. What gets my goat is that, had we not had transportation, we could’ve easily been in the statistics of the malnourished.
Bear in mind, malnourished doesn’t necessarily mean underweight. A great many people who are obese are actually undernourished, adding yet another layer to the obesity problem.
The distance from a home to a source of fresh, healthy food constitutes the geography component of the problem. Economic and geographic factors are most often both seen in a food desert, creating a vicious cycle.
During my high school years, our family moved into a relatively poor part of the city. Taking the city bus from my home to our downtown high school each day, I saw the decline with each mile. Once I reached my stop, I stepped over homeless men to walk the last two blocks to school.
My parents picked me up occasionally, and one day we stopped on the way home to get a gallon of milk. We passed through the ramshackle neighborhoods into a poor but clean area of town and stopped at the store, as it was the only one within about six miles.
I will never forget going into the “produce section” and finding nothing but white potatoes and some limp celery and carrots. That was it. I confess to being a foodie since childhood, begging my mother for starfruit, pomegranates, and kiwi each time she took me to the store. Needless to say, I was appalled at the lack of fresh food in the store, even at age sixteen.
I was highly inspired by a project in Rhode Island where a group of students went into a Latino area of Providence and did a store makeover. They changed the displays to move healthier foods to eye-level and made signs in both English and Spanish advertising “healthy choices.” This is one fantastic example of people affecting change in their local areas!
In a more rural area, my online friend Robyn mentions a Share the Bounty Shack near her home. People drop off the produce they’re unable to use from their gardens and deposit it in the shack. Those who need food can take whatever they’d like. I love this idea!
My church often has baskets of produce at the entrance with handwritten signs that say “Please take.” As the congregants come from all over the metro area, many having less access to fresh food, it’s nice that those who are able to share, do.
Navigating the Supermarket
If you have no access to better stores, no benefactors dropping off oodles of zucchini, and no fresh produce in your markets, now what? Well, now if the time to put that good ol’ American ingenuity to work.
First and foremost, request what you want from the owner or manager. If enough people ask, stores will carry products. It’s a simple law of consumer demand!
Second, shop the perimeter. Even in stores with limited fresh produce, the better foods will be along the outside edges and the middle comprised of mostly processed foods.
Sure people want to get the most for their limited food dollars, but you’re not getting nutrition from processed food! Maximizing your food dollars means maximizing nutrition, not calories. Given that more than 60% of the American population is overweight or obese, clearly we don’t need more calories!
Keep in mind that canned and frozen fruits and vegetables (without added sugar) are better than nothing. Fresh is always best, to be sure. However, better food choices will crowd out the junk until there just isn’t room for it in your diet.
Look for beans. Canned will work, but dried is cheaper and healthier. No time for beans? Fine. Go with split peas, lentils, and brown rice. I’ve even got a cooking method that takes mere minutes and will be ready when you get home from work!
Before breakfast, cover your lentils and/or rice with double the water (2 c. water to 1 c. grains) and bring it to a boil on the stove. While they come to a boil, preheat the oven to 350. When they’ve reached a boil, turn the stove off, and put the pan in the oven (or transfer to a covered dish if your pans aren’t ovenproof).
Turn the oven off, and allow them to cook while you’re gone. The heat inside the oven should cook them completely without it being on, so when you get home all you need to do is add any seasonings you love (we like chili powder and cumin, along with a little salt and cayenne pepper).
A Few Final Ideas
Skip the fast food! If you must eat it occasionally, go with a single burger and a side salad or a bowl of soup. Most fast food outlets offer a side salad or a baked potato for the same price as french fries. Skip the soda and get a water. Is it as pleasurable? Not at first. But when we begin to see food as fuel, we see that these choices are better for our bodies.
If your budget is tight, check out Hillbilly Housewife. She’s got frugal recipes to feed the whole family. The site even gives daily calorie ranges for the meals to ensure that everyone is getting their basic needs met!
Also look into Angel Food Ministries. They offer pickup at many local churches and provide fresh food. They also accept food stamps, which is unusual for a group of this type. The website offers recipes for how to best use their food.
While there are certainly no easy answers, the food desert is navigable. If we as a nation want to stem the obesity epidemic, there is no other option than to start where we are, and to start now. Join me in bringing life to the food desert in whatever way you’re able!